Helping Athletes Overcome Injury With Keith Embray

Former NFL Defensive Lineman and current assistant athletics director at the University of Pennsylvania State Keith Embray shares his journey to the football field and the physical therapists that helped along the way.

When you’re one of over 300,000 people trying out for a job that only 3,000 people in the world get, it can be difficult to persevere. But, even after early rejection, Keith Embray kept going until he landed a spot on an NFL roster. 

Embray brings this perseverance to every situation — including the multiple times on the football field when he got injured. He persisted through ligament tears, fractures and concussions until one injury ended his football career.

“My career ended on a practice field,” Embray shared, “doing something I had done a thousand times before, on a pass-rush drill.”

Embray now oversees the student athlete welfare and development program at the Pennsylvania State University, where he encourages college athletes to not only value their bodies, but to view themselves as more than just athletes.

In this episode of Powering Health and Wellness with RPM Rehab, Embray takes us on his personal journey to becoming a professional football player and the role physical therapists and mentors played in getting him there.

The connection between athletes and physical therapists

In a sport as physical as football, NFL athletes often cross paths with physical therapists. Embray was no exception — and he was grateful for every single one he encountered during his career.

In high school and college, Embray was lucky enough to not sustain any  injuries serious enough to keep him off the field. But once he entered into the world of professional football that all changed.

“One of the things that hurt the most was when I fractured one of my fingers,” said Embray. “I’ve torn my quad, my hamstring, my pec. Stuff that just hurt but you could play with it.” 

He was able to keep playing thanks to physical therapists and trainers, like Bill Bean,who coached him through injury and led him through recovery. After countless times spent with a physical therapist, Embray understands the impact they can have on an athlete’s life.

“People would say ‘Man, how do you keep getting cut and keep coming back?’” he recalled. “I had to learn mentally how to deal with that. These folks, these athletic trainers, these physical therapists, people just don’t realize the impact they have on these young people’s lives who are athletes.”

Embray was the persevering player he was thanks, in part, to all of the physical therapists that helped him to be confident enough to step back on the field following injuries. He encourages all of his student athletes to forge tight-knit relationships with their physical therapists and trainers. 

“They don’t need anything from you, but you need everything from them,” Embray explained. “People that go into athletic training or physical therapy, it’s because they want people to feel good not only physically, but mentally about themselves. There’s so much of that confidence thing to build into athletes.”

More than an athlete

In Embray’s new role guiding young athletes, he makes one message very clear: you are more than just an athlete. 

While physical capabilities and athletic talent is important, young athletes need to value themselves beyond how much they achieve on the playing field. That way, when inevitable injuries do come their way, they realize their self-worth goes way beyond their sport.

“You can do something that many people can’t do, but you can also do something that everyone can do: be a human being,” he said. “You’re a human being first.”

As a young athlete, Embray himself was no stranger to the pressure to succeed as an athlete. He invested everything in his identity as an athlete — which only made rejection harder.

“There’s this feeling of ‘Wow. Did I wrongly invest all of my energy and efforts into something?’ Then you have this feeling that you are “less than” because you’re not this or that,” Embray remembered.

Physical Therapists helped him not only cope with the physical pain that came with football injuries, but the mental pain of being rejected. It’s the role of a physical therapist to help athletes feel their best, both physically and mentally.

“It took folks with expertise mentally and physically to help me exist in that world as long as I did,” said Embray. “If it wasn’t for so many of the professionals that enter into this fields to help people feel better about themselves, then I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

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